by Gilles Beloeil

Digital Painting of Le Retour with Gilles Beloeil

Montreal-based Gilles Beloeil has worked for Ubisoft since 2007 and is currently senior concept artist and digital matte painter.  Here, Gilles shares an in-depth look at his thought process behind one of his own digital paintings, Le Retour.

For this digital painting I used Adobe Photoshop and the new Wacom Intuos Pro. Since this painting was my own personal project there was no client or deadline, so I could take as much time as I desired to work on the painting until the final result pleased me.  However, even though it was a personal project and I had no client to consider, I approached it with techniques that I often employ.

Rough Sketch:

Image 1: The Making of Le Retour

After taking my time collecting relevant visual references (photos from a personal trip to Brittany, movie screenshots, architectural examples, etc.), I make a line drawing sketch in Photoshop, looking for an interesting composition. The idea is to make the viewer feel the main character is someone important -- a king returning to his castle after a long journey.

Checking shapes and color palette:

Image 2: The Making of Le Retour

I start from my reference photos and paintings that appear to have the right color palette. I loosely paint the most important shapes and check if my color palette works well. There is no need to take care of the details right now, so the sketch only takes me a few minutes.

Refining shapes, edges and values:

Image 3

I am confident that I'm going in the right direction at this point, so I begin to pay close attention to the shapes and  edges. I also focus a lot on values. The lighting should become coherent at this stage, the shapes should be readable and the values understandable.

Getting a fresh perpective:

Image 4

I take a break for a few hours and look at my painting again. I am no longer sure about the palette. The mood seems almost too joyful; I had something darker in mind. I didn’t want the return of the king to be a happy moment, but wanted a heavier, more tense feeling, as though no one expected the king to return. The warm bright light gives a different feeling and tells another story. I also want a more dramatic-looking sky, with heavy clouds. I use one of my reference photos for this. I remove the top right character from the painting, because I want to focus more attention on the two men at the end of the road. I am still testing, and I know I will change my mind many times about what I should do. This is the main reason why painting digitally is so great compared to painting traditionally: you can do major changes without having to restart the whole thing.

Further refinement:

Image 5

I change the sky once again so the clouds now guide the eye to the main character. The major strong lines in the painting lead toward him, which helps the viewer to read the image easily. To make the focus even more prominent, I color the king's cape red - the only saturated color in the painting. I pick a very saturated red from the color wheel and paint on a separate layer in “color” mode. Then I play with the opacity of this layer to blend the color with the palette that is already there. I decide upon this vibrant red because I feel that the overall painting is too monochromatic. I prefer the contrast that I've created with the strong red and all the shades of grey in the main painting.

Reworking some earlier decisions:

Image 6

I always work randomly on a painting, fixing a value here, a color there, reworking a shape in another place. At this stage, I have the feeling that I am correcting the image instead of creating one. When I feel there is nothing left to correct, the painting will be done.

I decide to rework the character on the left; he seems a bit boring to look at. I paint him in a soldier outfit, and think it makes sense that a king is escorted by his army. I also carefully paint in some architectural details, still looking very closely at my visual references. It's important to add variety among the shapes, avoid repetition, and make sure that the viewer won’t be bored after looking at the painting for just a few seconds. I design some spiky shapes and contrast them with some square ones. I also paint some plants hanging from the big branches on the top right, because I feel that the branch edges are very 'contrasty' and hard-edged and are too eye-catching. I want to avoid the branches becoming the main focus of the composition, because this area is very close to the edge of the painting. The edges of the painting are like a forbidden zone for contrast, because we want the viewer to believe that the world he is looking at actually exists, and want him to forget that he is looking at a painting. This is why composition is so important, it guides the eye toward the points of interest.

Lighting and creating the illusion of 3D:

img 7

I decide to warm up the image with the curves tool and photo filter, except for the parts that are in shadow. One rule about colors that works pretty much every time is if the main light source is warm, the shadows appear cooler; if the main light is cool, the shadows appear warmer.  

I also decide to lighten the ocean, vary the color temperature in some places and use the reflection of the sun on the water to make the main island stand out. This helps to beffer define the island's silhouette and increases the feeling of depth. I always try to detach a maximum number of planes to maximize this illusion of 3D (even if we 're dealing with only two dimensions). Finally, I darken the silhouette on top of the main castle to add contrast, so it becomes more eye-catching.

Finalizing the digital painting:

Img 8

Now it’s time to finalize the painting. This is not the fastest part, but it is certainly the one that is the most fun and rewarding. I am close to the final version, so it’s fun to see this almost-finished state. Every little touch seems to make the painting even better. I add a motion blur on the soldier to make him softer and less visually important, I rework the left side of the main castle silhouette because I thought it was a bit too simple, I add rocks in the ocean, bring back the top right character (that I removed earlier) and remove the figures on the road. I add birds and smoke to add the feeling of movement, of life, which can be tricky to get without those elements.


This process was long, around forty hours, because I took my time and  had fun. I  wanted the result to be good, it was my only goal. As a matter of fact, I think the resulting image looks very rendered, for my standards and I am pleased with this painting.

Every time I paint I strive to increase my mastery of the fundamentals: composition, drawing, design, values, edges, strong lines, variety, contrasts, texture, color temperature, lighting and scale. Every artist must think about all these elements regardless of what technique they use.

Gilles BeloeilBiography

Gilles is French and has lived in Canada since 2000. For the last six years he has worked in the visual effects industry as a digital matte painter and lighting technical director. Gilles is a concept artist at Ubisoft Montreal, where he has worked since 2007.  He has worked on the Assassin’s Creed games between 2008 and 2016 and is now working on the For Honor games.

He has published works in Digital Art Masters (volumes 7, 8 and 9) and is co-author of Art Fundamentals (3D Total) and The Ultimate Concept Art Career Guide (3D Total).

Since 2014, Gilles has been a teacher of environment painting and design at CG Master Academy.

External Links

Gilles on CG Master Academy



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